Singing in harmony is a skill that any vocalist can develop, provided you follow certain steps and understand some basic music theory. Harmonies add richness to vocal melodies and are a great way to produce backing textures.
Vocalists often believe that singing in harmony is a complex skill that takes a long time to master. In reality, it can be learned fairly quickly if you lay the correct foundations to build your skill upon.
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What Are Vocal Harmonies? – Basic Theory
Vocal harmonies are essentially counter melodies that accompany a lead vocal. Singing in harmony requires a minimum of two vocal lines, and there’s no limit to the number of harmonies that can be performed simultaneously.
If you’re familiar with the piano, guitar, or any other polyphonic instrument, you’ve probably come across chords. Chords are essentially clusters of notes that form a harmony. Let’s use the standard major triad as an example:
The C major chord on a piano consists of three notes. The first note is the root, which is played as a C. The next note is the third, which is an E, and the final note is the fifth which is a G.
In this case, the third and fifth notes (E and G) are harmonizing with the root note of C. These harmonies cause the sound to become richer, creating a chord. Likewise, when it comes to singing harmonies, we are following the same process.
If a vocal melody starts on the note of C, you could harmonize in several ways. You could sing the third note in the scale, which would create a combination of C and E, almost forming the C major triad.
Alternatively, you could sing the G, which is the fifth note in the scale. Or, you could take a less conventional approach and sing the sixth note (A), the seventh note (B), the second note (D), and so on.
Don’t worry if this sounds a little confusing initially. All will become clear as you read through the information in this guide.
If you’re unfamiliar with music theory you can still learn to sing in harmony. I learned by ear initially and then learned theory afterward. I’ll provide you with physical and theoretical methods to improve your ability.
If you play an instrument or have access to recording software, you can use this simple method to learn the basics of harmonizing. Firstly, you need to play a middle C on your instrument. There are also videos and tools online for playing notes.
Start by copying the middle C note, singing it as accurately as you can. Once you’ve successfully copied the pitch of the note, play the next G on your instrument or online note generator.
The G is the fifth note in the C major scale, which is one of the easiest and most common harmonies. Once you’ve got comfortable singing the G as accurately as you can, try to remember what that note sounds like.
Next, go back to playing the original middle C, but this time, instead of mimicking the note that is being played, try to sing the G that you sang over the top of the C note.
If you’re limited in terms of experience with vocal harmonies, this might not be easy at first. You might find that your instinct is to copy the C note, rather than sing the G.
However, if you stick at it and keep going back to the G to remind yourself of the pitch, you will get it eventually. Once you’ve mastered the harmony of the fifth interval, move onto the third.
The third interval in the C major scale is E. This is another very common harmony, but it is a little more difficult than singing the fifth. With practice, you’ll be able to nail both of them with confidence.
You can repeat this exercise with every note in the C major scale, to begin with. Certain harmonies, like the second (D) and the 6th (A) will feel unnatural at first. If you incorporate them into a daily practice routine you’ll build the skills very quickly.
The notes in the C major scale are as follows:
- 1st – C
- 2nd – D
- 3rd – E
- 4th – F
- 5th – G
- 6th – A
- 7th – B
Once you’ve developed your ear for singing harmonies using the simple method I just described, you can move onto more complex melody lines. In my experience, the best way to do this is by using a multitrack recording.
If you have access to a microphone and recording software, that’s great. If you don’t you can download plenty of free DAWs online, and use the inbuilt microphone on your phone or computer to perform this next exercise.
To begin with, choose a song that has a vocal melody that is comfortably within your vocal range. The song needs to have some backing vocal harmonies, and you’re going to attempt to recreate them.
My go-to for learning harmonies is always The Beatles. Their sense of melody and an incredible range of backing vocals are great for perfecting this skill. However, choose any song that you like to sing.
Start by learning the main vocal line and lyrics. Once you’ve memorized it, record yourself singing along to the song, only singing the main vocal melody. Do as many takes as is necessary until you sing it accurately.
Then, once you’ve got a good recording of the main vocal line of your chosen song, go back and listen intently to the harmonies. Try your best to separate the main vocal from the harmony, and sing along until you find the right notes to match the record.
Then it’s time to go back to your original recording and layer the harmonies over the top of the main vocal line. Be patient with yourself – this is not an easy thing to do right away.
Nevertheless, after a little while of practicing, you’ll find that your ear for hearing the harmonies magically improves. Your brain gains the ability to separate vocal lines, and you can sing the harmonies more accurately.
You can repeat this exercise, increasing the complexity of the songs you choose. Eventually, you will be able to sing along in harmony with any song that you hear, instantly.
Finding a Practice Partner
The two exercises that I’ve outlined so far in this guide are brilliant for learning the initial skills necessary for singing in harmony. You can do them alone, which is another bonus at first.
However, there comes a point where your progress is likely to stall without physically practicing singing harmonies with another vocalist. If you have a friend who is a singer, ask them to join you in your practice.
The main benefit of practicing with another person is that you get to hear the way your voice interacts with theirs. You are much more likely to focus when there is someone else to hold you accountable.
You can also share tips and advice about how to improve your harmonizing skills. This will be highly valuable in the long run, as sometimes when we practice alone we fail to notice our mistakes that someone else would pick up on.
It helps if one of you is able to play an instrument as an accompaniment to keep you in tune. Choose a song that suits both of your vocal styles, and take it in turns to sing the various sections.
Be sure to review your performances by recording them regularly. This is invaluable for tracking your progress and will encourage you as you improve your ability to sing in harmony.
There comes a point when you reach a level of competence with singing pre-determined harmonies. At this stage, you are ready to move into the exciting realm of improvisation!
Using the knowledge you have gained from the aforementioned practices, you can attempt to make up your own vocal harmonies on the spot. Again, use a recording device to monitor your performance.
You can either create your own original compositions and experiment with improvised harmonies, or try to add your own to pre-existing songs. Both of these approaches will work effectively.
Improvising harmonies are similar to soloing on a guitar or piano. At first, you are likely to feel incompetent and struggle to come up with ideas at the moment. However, this is a skill that is built with repetition, so stick at it!
When you learn how to sing in harmony, it opens up many doors for your performances and compositions. It’s a skill that stays with you for life, so investing time into it is a worthy endeavor.
As with any musical practice, the key is consistency. Set up a routine using the exercises I’ve laid out in this guide, and in a relatively short time, you’ll be amazed at how much your ability to sing in harmony has improved.